Outback 2: Major Mitchell's mission
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the effective conservation of Australian wildlife and its habitats. It owns or manages more parcels of land – scattered right across the Australian continent – than any other non-governmental conservation organisation; more than 30,000 square kilometres, in 23 sanctuaries, listed here.
Bowra Sanctuary west of Cunnamulla in Southwest Queensland was acquired by the AWC in 2010 and covers more than 140 square kilometres. This is the Mulga Lands bioregion. Bowra encompasses 15 ecosystems including acacia (mulga) shrubland, grasslands, Coolibah woodlands and Red River and Poplar gum stands. Bowra boasts more than 200 species of bird, 27 mammals, 63 reptiles, 19 frogs and 12 threatened species, 9 of them birds. Birds Queensland volunteers maintain and operate camping facilities and accommodation for visitors, as well as conducting bird and other surveys, controlling ferals, weed and fire management, and other scientific research.
We had asked locally where we could find birds. I'd read about the Cunnamulla Bushlands, a walking track through six regional ecosystems, but was told it's never been quite finished. We were running out of time on our mission to find some Major Mitchell's Cockatoos. On last year's Outback trip there was a single sighting: I spotted one on top of a tree at the side of the road as my friend was driving the last leg of the first day to Charleville. Technically that wasn't good enough, according to our rather strict rules about how a bird is officially clocked. This bird is so striking with its brilliant crest, however, it couldn't have been anything else. None had yet appeared on this trip and we were already three-quarters of the way through the itinerary. Bowra was the answer.
Cunnamulla is on the Warrego River, about 200 kilometres south of Charleville and 800 west of Brisbane. It grew up in the mid-1800s at the junction of two stock routes by a reliable waterhole, and became a staging post for Cobb & Co. Today it lists wool, pig and kangaroo hunting and hospitality among its main industries. The town has experienced serious flooding, most recently in 2010 and 2012, and is protected by an 11-metre-high levee.
Although it is wonderfully exhilarating to get up and get on the road every morning, a day's respite here and there on a road trip makes a lot of sense. After breakfast, we walked around town in warm sunshine; had a coffee sitting outside a cafe watching Cunnamulla people go by; and popped into the opal shop and the tourist information centre. Signs and names and colours caught my eye.
Is there a connection between photography and helium balloons? Is this the longest acronym?
If you visit this town, you must go and see the Cunnamulla Fella. Actually, you can't miss him: it's a huge statue. This was the title of a song, written in the 1950s by Stan Coster and sung by Slim Dusty, both of whom are/were well-known country music singer-songwriters here. [Country music is very popular in Australia and, to my unaccustomed ears, is largely indistinguishable from its American stablemate: just replace Albuqueque with The Kimberleys. However, I do confess to Luck by Busby Marou being on my 'running' playlist.] In the '50s and '60s, wool and cattle were big business in this part of the world, and the towns boomed as young men came to work on sheep and cattle stations. At the end of long hard days they would squat around the campfire regaling each other with stories. The Cunnamulla council decided to pay tribute to these iconic Australian characters and celebrate the town's notoriety in the song. ExplorOz.com says of the statue: 'the Cunnamulla Fella is the larrikin in all Australians'. Unfortunately, the video encapsulates the latent misogyny in many Aussie blokes, too.
We arrived at Bowra not really knowing whether we could just walk in and start looking for birds. We weren't booked in. As it turned out, the two volunteers manning the office that week, George and Karen, were friends of a keen birder I know in Brisbane. Armed with bird checklist and a rough map of 'survey routes', we set out for three possible Major Mitchell's hotspots. Following the recent rain, George warned us, some tracks might be impassable and creek crossings deep. First up was Saw Pits Waterhole, where we saw Diamond Doves, budgies, swallows, Willy Wagtails, ducks, a White-necked Heron, Zebra Finches, a Pied Cormorant and more Emu chicks. But no Major Mitchell's.
We had a couple of attempts at getting to Gumholes, another waterhole on the other side of the property. The first route was boggier than we realised and we had to turn back and find another way. Once there, we saw a few birds flitting about, but no Major Mitchell's. Good reflections though.
So the lagoon back at the homestead, where four cockatoos had been reported that morning, was our last hope. We started to walk around the lagoon. Campers were setting up, and serious birders with cameras and tripods and long, long lenses were preparing to shoot any birds congregating, as they do, close to water and prior to roosting. I chatted to a Yorkshireman who'd lived in Australia for 40 years, but whose accent was unmistakable. He'd travelled around this continent several times and as a result must have accumulated bird picture libraries. He counted those he'd deleted in the tens of thousands. I had no wish whatsoever to return to Brisbane at that point. With my travel planning experience so far, I could easily have readjusted the route so we headed south from Hungerford, our next port of call, and not back east. Wanaaring… Wilcannia… Broken Hill… the Flinders Ranges…
I suddenly heard what I instinctively knew was the call of a 'cockie': that unmistakable squawk. I looked up to see two Major Mitchell's land in a tree by the lagoon. Two more arrived. We quickly walked round the little lake to get a better view: I was barely able to focus the camera, but I wasn't the only one who was excited. Mission Mitchell's accomplished.
There are few differences between males and females, by the way, except the male is slightly larger. The bird is also known as the Leadbeater's, Desert or Pink Cockatoo. Its pink is more salmony, less blue, than the Galah's.
Thomas Mitchell was Surveyor General of New South Wales where most of his explorations were based. In 1845-46, however, he came up to Queensland. Having realised that explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt had gone before him in the east, Mitchell went west. His discoveries included the Warrego and a river he named the Victoria but later became the Barcoo, and the grass that bears his name. I have no idea where he first came across these remarkable birds, but he described them thus:
Few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species whose pink-coloured wings and flowing crest might have embellished the air of a more voluptuous region.
I couldn't agree with him more. Whatever happened to all those forests?
This post was last edited on 5 November 2016